Sri Lanka is a lush, mountainous island off the coast of India which is an off-the-beaten path destination in Asia that most travelers overlook in favor of other countries like Thailand or India. Sri Lanka is a short flight from most of Southeast Asia, which makes it an awesome add-on destination to a longer trip in Asia.
I visited Sri Lanka as a totally unexpected destination on my 90 backpacking trip, thanks to a good flight deal. After spending one week in Sri Lanka, I saw a lot of the highlights of the island, but definitely plan to return in the future. One week in Sri Lanka will ensure you see all of the highlights, but 2 weeks is really the ideal amount to see more of the island.
This is my ideal 1 week itinerary for Sri Lanka!
Day One: Colombo
Nearly all international flights will arrive into the Colombo International Airport (code CMB) and it is a fairly small airport located about 1 hour outside of the Colombo city center. A lot of visitors simply skip Colombo in favor of other more interesting sights on the island, but the city has done a lot to revitalize itself in the years since the Civil War and there are a few interesting cultural sites to explore while you sleep off your jetlag.
- Fort and Colonial District: This is the most historic part of Colombo where you can see the President’s House, the old General Post Office, an impressive clock tower and the fortress walls.
- Beira Lake: Large lake in the center of the city that has a characteristic color because of a species of algae that lives here. Offers nice views of the city at night as everything lights up.
- Galle Face Green Waterfront Walk: A lovely promenade that meanders along the oceanfront blue waters. This is a nice place to take a walk early morning or late evening.
- Ministry of Crab: Named one of the best restaurants in Asia, the Ministry of Crab is an excellent seafood restaurant that specializes in, you guessed it, crab.
Day Two and Three: Train Scenery and Nuwara Eliya
One of the things that has always been famous about Sri Lanka is the scenic train system. Regularly rated one of the most beautiful railways in the world, riding a train is an absolute must-do on any one week travel itinerary in Sri Lanka. Before you book your tickets expecting a glorious, luxury train experience, let’s try to tailor some experiences. The trains in Sri Lanka are used by locals and tourists alike, so this will first and foremost be a cultural experience. These trains are not fancy and most don’t even offer AC. These trains are not fast either—the ride from Colombo to Elliya will take the entire day.
Even without the AC, the train was quite comfortable, and I really enjoyed traveling like a local. People hang out the doors and windows, and even jump off and on with the train while it is still moving! It reminds you that Sri Lanka is still an up-and-coming destination, so you can see now before things modernize to meet tourists’ demands.
Thankfully, the train tickets are extremely affordable for travelers and the thing you’re really there for—the views—truly are spectacular. You must sit on the right hand side of the train to get the best views. For the first two hours of the ride, you’ll mainly be traveling through towns and villages; but then you go through a long tunnel, and on the other side of the tunnel is where you enter a lush, green rainforest. Out of a movie set, the rest of ride is so scenic as the train wraps around mountains and valleys.
Your destination, Nuwara Eliya (also know as Ella by lots of foreigners), is in the heart of the mountainous tea growing region of Sri Lanka and is a popular destination for adventure seekers. Hiking Adam’s Peak, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka is one of the bucketlist activities in the area.
One of the most famous things about Sri Lanka is Ceylon Tea—black, green or white tea that accounts for about 2% of the annual Sri Lankan GDP. Tea production was introduced in Sri Lanka by the British during the colonial period, and it has absolutely flourished since then. By the latest count, the tea industry employs about 1 million people in Sri Lanka (directly & indirectly) and it is one the largest producers of tea in the world.
Typically, the tea fields are largely worked by women with few labor rights or protections which often leads to a poor quality of life where women make as little as 100 rupees a day (less than $1) and are required to pick for up to 12 hours a day. Many are forced to live on the tea plantation with up to 1,000 other workers in low-income housing establishments because there are no other close options available.
Most people want to visit a tea plantation during their visit with visions of bucolic terraced hillsides being handpicked by women in colorful saris. However when choosing a tea plantation to visit, I would recommend you do your research and choose an ethical, fair trade tea grower because the industry can be problematic and it is important to know how your tourist dollars impact ethical practices when you travel.
Day Four: Kandy
Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka, and it was the last capital city of the famous Kings of Sri Lanka, so it is often known as the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Located in the center of the country, it is an easy point to access for the rest of the activities on this 1 week travel itinerary.
In the center of the city is the beautiful Kandy lake, which has an easily accessible pedestrian walkway all around the lake. It’s really lovely around sunset time as the colors of the water and surrounding forests light up in bright orange hues.
Next to the lake you can find the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is one of the most sacred Buddhist temples. It is believed that the tooth was pulled from the body of the Buddha and has been preserved for nearly 2000 years. Inside the temple grounds is the World Buddhist Museum. A surprisingly interesting stop, the museum’s wings are organized by region (i.e. Bangladesh, Korea, India) and show a variety of Buddhist relics from each country. I really enjoyed looking at all the different depictions of the Buddha from the various regions, and the differences you notice.
Hike up to the top of Kandy’s nearby hill (or take a cab/tuk-tuk) to see the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue. Visible from nearly every part of the city, a cement poured 88 foot Buddha towers over the city from up on one of the steep mountains. A bright white statue, its a steep walk uphill to reach the site, or you can take a cheap tuktuk up. Once up there, you get a lovely view of the Buddha, and even got to walk up the backside of the Buddha, for a panoramic view of the city from above.
Rated one of the best botanical gardens in the region, Peradenyia Botanical Gardens in Kandy are well worth a visit during your 1 week itinerary in Sri Lanka. I loved strolling through the well maintained grounds looking at over 4,000 varieties of plants. You are given a map right when you walk in, but the gardens have good foot paths and well-labeled signs, so it’s easy to navigate.
The Orchid House is probably the most famous of attractions in the gardens, with over 40 different types of orchids from around the tropics, all in bloom and well maintained. There is also the highly ‘grammable Palm Promenade, a walking path between perfectly manicured palm trees towering above.
Day Five: Sigiriya and Dambulla
Sri Lanka is a country full of long and deep historical roots, so it is essential to spend at least one day on your one week itinerary in Sri Lanka learning about this fascinating country. Dambula Cave Temple is located a few hours drive away from Kandy and is well worth exploring on a half-day tour. You will know when you arrive at the site, because there is a massive golden Buddha statue at the entrance. Completed in 2001, this is the largest buddha in the world in the Dhamma Chakka seated posture.
The more impressive portion of the site is the Cave Temple which archeologists believe was built in the first century BC. The temple is composed of five different caves, which were converted into shrine rooms containing 157 different Buddha shrines and over 1500 paintings on the ceiling. I had no idea what to expect going in here since I hadn’t seen any pictures; and when I walked in, I was absolutely amazed by the caves.
The statues were so beautiful and each unique with different colors or details. Some are carved out of the bedrock itself, others were carved outside the cave and then brought in. The colors on the statues is still in excellent condition, and modern lighting has been installed so you can see the details and well preserved pieces.
Continuing on from Dambulla, Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an archaeological site dating back about 1,500 years, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The sprawling site features gardens, ruins and a moat in front of the famous massive rock facade. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is another must-do activity on any 1 week itinerary in Sri Lanka.
It takes about an hour of climbing steep stairs to reach the top of the plateau (where the historic site is located), and along the way you can see frescos from 490 AD. Still in beautifully colored condition, the frescos are the remains of a giant mural that may have wrapped all the way across the western face of the rock.
Near the top of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is the Lions Gate. All that remains of the original statue and gate is a pair of massive clawed lions feet, which give visitors a sense of the scale of this amazing site. Archaeologists believe the statue may have been carved out of the original bedrock, and reach the peak of the mountain. Once at the top of the rock, you get an amazing 360 panorama view of the valley and surrounding mountain ranges. Plus, the ruined city at the top is a beautiful complex of terrace levels and brick mortar work.
Day Six: Wildlife Safari
Sigiriya is near Wasgamuwa National Park where you will spend your next day on your one week adventure in Sri Lanka. Spanning over 36,900 hectares, Wasgamuwa National Park is the perfect place to go on a one day wildlife safari because the park is home elephants, purple faced langur monkeys, wild boar, sambar and spotted deer, buffalo, leopards and sloth bears.
According to the World Animal Protection Organization’s Research Report on the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia, Sri Lanka has the highest density of wild Asian elephants worldwide: an estimated five to six thousand in the wild. Elephant herds in this area can reach up to 150 elephants in a herd, a sight rarely seen in other parts of Sri Lanka. What I think is particularly good about the elephant tourism industry in Sri Lanka is that nearly all the elephants are in the wild, and rarely are elephant rides offered here, so you can feel a good about a majority of the elephant wildlife encounters you can have. The best time to enjoy the sight of large herds is during November to May. In the rest of the year the elephants tend to migrate to nearby Minneriya and Kaudulla national Parks.
I would highly recommend doing a safari experience, instead of going to one of the elephant “orphanages”. I decided to make a quick pit stop at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage on my way back to Colombo, even though I was a little leery of stopping here. In 1975, the orphanage was created to house the abandoned and wounded elephants from around Sri Lanka. The entrance fee is a bit steep (about $25) and it only includes admission, not other perks. While it was exciting to see so many elephants up close and personal, I was quite disappointed with the orphanage. I think it has lost sight of it’s original goal, and is now largely a tourist trap. All the elephants are tied to posts with chains, and although they are in an open air cage, they are only let loose when being walked to the river by the keepers. Furthermore, numerous workers at the orphanage offered me the opportunity to touch or ride the elephants if I gave them a tip. This is NOT what I think conservationist should be encouraging in their facilities because this is the exact type of behavior that encourage humans to mistreat or misuse animals.
Day Seven: Negombo
The one thing that hasn’t been covered on this itinerary yet? The beach! As an island nation, it would be a shame to miss a visit to the sandy beaches of Sri Lanka on your one week travel itinerary. We saved the best for last!
Your final day in Sri Lanka will begin with a lot of travel. It takes about 4-6 hours via car to get from Wasgamuwa National Park to Negombo, a beach town near the airport where you’ll spend your last 24 hours in Sri Lanka. Your safari or hotel may be able to help you arrange a car transfer, or you could also return via train.
Negombo is a piece of paradise located just 20 kilometers from the Colombo International Airport. With its high palm trees and sweeping beaches on the west coast, there is little else to do in Negombo aside from relaxing the day away on the shores of Sandy Beach. This is a great way to end your trip in Sri Lanka with a relaxing day after lots of busy trael. There is plenty of street food to try at the beach and I would recommend the fresh fried crab.
Why Visit Sri Lanka Now?
Over the past few years, BBC Travel, the New York Times, Adventurous Kate and Travel + Leisure Magazine have all featured Sri Lanka in their travel editorials. It is the next big destination in Southeast Asia! From adventure activities to luxurious beach resorts to cultural heritage sites, Sri Lanka has a little bit of everything to offer. Plus with a compact island environment, it’s easy to explore different parts of the island on a tight time-frame.
Sri Lanka is an ideal place for budget travelers. Tuk-tuks, bicycles and intercity trains make it easy and cheap to get around. Plus, many of the heritage sites are free to enter and explore. Backpackers will find a myriad of cheap lodging options including hostels and beach front hotels. At the same time, you can spend a little bit more money and customize your trip 1 week trip to Sri Lanka to do more luxury activities which are still incredibly affordable here because of the lack of tourists. For example, an elephant and jungle safari is a popular activity in Asia, and the prices in Sri Lanka are much cheaper than in neighboring Thailand or India.
What You Need to Know About Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan people are welcoming and hassle-free. Unlike its neighbor to the north, Sri Lanka has a reputation for genuineness. People are helpful without being over-bearing or obtrusive, and you don’t get ripped off at every turn. You can ask people for help at the train station even if you don’t speak the language and you can almost always find someone to guide you along the way.
Sri Lanka offers a visa-free stopover for 48 hours, but other than that, almost all foreign travelers will be required to have a visa to Sri Lanka. For most nationalities, you can apply for the visa online in just a few minutes. It only took 24 hours for my visa to get process and it was waiting for me at the airport. The last I check, the visa fee was 35 USD which you can pay via credit card when you apply for the visa.
This post was originally published in November 2016, and then updated in July 2018 and January 2020.